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Muslim leaders slam govt on crackdown
NEW DELHI |
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Hundreds of Islamic leaders in India demanded on Tuesday that the government protect their community from persecution, saying Muslims were being unfairly targeted in a police crackdown after bombings across the country.
Communal politics has surfaced as an issue ahead of a general election due in early 2009, with attacks on Christians and suspected Islamist bombings polarising a secular government and Hindu-nationalist opposition.
"Today, with the injustice and harassment, Islam and Muslims in this country are under threat," said Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, influential leader of the Jama Masjid mosque, the largest in north India.
"We have been quiet for a long time, but we cannot take this anymore. We too have rights."
Bukhari said neither the ruling Congress nor the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were a suitable option for the minority Muslims, who make up 13 percent of India's 1.1 billion-plus population.
"They think we only have these two options," he said, addressing a crowd of Muslim leaders and others on the lawns of the Jama Masjid, a 17th century mosque built by Mughal kings.
"But water will find its way, it will find its own level."
Bombings by suspected Islamist militants have killed hundreds of people in recent months, and Muslim leaders accuse the police of indiscriminate arrests of young Muslim men who have been labelled as terrorists and paraded before the media.
Some analysts said many Muslim leaders were seeking to shore up their political position before elections. Muslims are key voter bases for the Congress and for regional parties.
"Just as the Congress and the BJP use terrorism to secure their voter base, the Muslim leaders are also using it to secure their position," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management.
DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT
In the last election in 2004, Congress came to power partly due to a secular backlash against the incumbent BJP-led government, especially after the Gujarat riots in 2002 when more than 2,000 Muslims were massacred by Hindu mobs.
India's election commission said on Tuesday it would hold five state elections in November and December that would gauge the political climate before next year's general election.
But the Congress party, labouring with economic woes, has been losing ground to the BJP, which is calling for harsher anti-terrorism measures, in state elections over the last year, and cannot be trusted to do justice to Muslims, Bukhari said.
"Muslims should unite, leaving aside ideological and sectional differences," he said.
The government held on Monday a meeting of the National Integration Council, a panel of public figures, to discuss communal tension, the first time the group has met since 2005.
"The Congress is really keen to establish its secular credentials and wants to show it is leading from the front," said Seema Desai, an analyst at consultancy Eurasia Group in London.
A number of smaller, but important, regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are keen to reach out to their Muslim vote bank, and that will put more pressure on Congress, she said.
"So Muslim leaders will be heard more than might have been the case in the run up to the national elections," Desai said.
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